Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Low Fantasy Gaming in the Midlands

The Midlands at LFG
Can I just say Stephen Grodzicki has outdone himself? What an awesome piece of work we have in this, his newest release. For any gamers looking for an original, gritty, low magic, swords & sorcery setting, you need look no further than the Midlands. There are several things to love and admire about this setting supplement, but perhaps the design element I love the most is the ability to pick it up and play a game within the Midlands with this book alone. There is no need to create your adventure before you give your players a chance to explore this mysterious and dangerous realm, or to buy one of Stephen's other great adventure releases. What you get in the Midlands is a well done sandbox setting with numerous useful GMing tools and a series of ready to play sandbox adventures as well! But, I get ahead of myself. Allow me to proceed in a more orderly fashion to give you an idea of what's under the the covers here and why I am so excited about this supplement.

First off, as you can tell by the front cover, the artwork is gorgeous. Stephen has several talented artists contributing to his work, and all of them do a fabulous job of bringing to mind some sort of a blend of adventure, intrigue and danger that might just have stepped off the pages of Lankhmar, Hyboria, Dying Earth, or out of the Dreamlands. And yet together creating something original and unique. The artwork inside follows the basic style of the first release, in black & white, which I personally love. It give the game a feel reminiscent of the original brown books (only more artistically fine), yet one can easily tell the updated mechanics have produced something new and compelling.

Which brings me to my next general observation: Mr. Grodzicki's writing style. Writing in a manner that is easy to read, direct and still powerfully evocative is not something easy to achieve. I, for instance, do not seem able to achieve such an effect without lots of work and exercise of my poetic muscles. Thus my writing often comes across as a bout of stream-of-thought logorrhea. Stephen though, writes with a beautiful, crips, powerful style; incredibly visionary in its ability to communicate the essence of his game and his setting in the fewest words possible. And for most of us with shelves crammed full of gaming supplements, and hard drives overly fragmented with digital gaming files, a fun yet easy to read supplement is a godsend.

Several examples from his LFG work include,

"Magic is not only rare, it is dark and inherently dangerous. Sorcery is a power not meant for mortals, and adventurers engage with it at their peril." p. 4

"Luck is a flexible and ephemeral quality however, and it has some additional uses (eg: party wide retreats from combat)." p. 11

"Demons are darkness and corruption incarnate, utterly depraved and malicious." p. 94

And from the Midlands,

"A sandbox setting is ripe for exploration and discovery, daring players to explore the unknown and unearth lost secrets. In the Midlands, most of the region is unmapped and unknown; full of locations no human has set foot in for centuries, if not millennia." p. 9

"The last of the dwarves, known as servitors, languish in Dol-Karok; shackled and enslaved by the Circle and their own racial goldlust." p. 18

"Juro Venosteri, a master thief and assassin, is lurking in one of the three rooms. He intends to take over the Red Hooks, and winning the tourney is another step in his grand plan, earning him the fame he needs. He wears an eyepatch, having lost an eye to a Nydissian warrior years ago. He has cultivated an unhealthy hatred for all southerners since, and will target them first." p. 171

The Midlands is not only designed to be a sandbox setting, but as Stephen puts it, the kind of campaign he played in growing up. And this is exactly the kind of play I was used to as well. The Midlands is open enough to allow rotating GMs, and self contained play sessions. By self contained, I mean that each "adventure" can be played as a unit isolated from other adventures, thus allowing GMs to develop the world collaboratively by choosing to focus on different areas within the overall setting. I would love to implement this in my current campaign.

Which brings me to a brief mention of another reason I love this setting. Though, ostensibly, the Midlands was created as a follow up supplement to the LFG game, it can be played in any reasonably D&D-esque system. In fact, when LFG first came out I was so excited because I was looking for something that played more like old school D&D in a hard core S&S milieu; but my players were somewhat loathe to leave 5e. In the Midlands I have the perfect opportunity to play in a setting designed for such a milieu, but that could very easily be played in 5e. Whether we make it a transition to LFG itself, or simply continue play with 5e in the Midlands, I think I would be much happier than I am now with the campaign we are playing in 5e.

As for the specifics in this supplement, after setting the groundwork for what the Midlands is, Stephen writes a short history of the world which I felt drew on just enough Swords & Sorcery tropes to define itself clearly, but also novel enough to seem fresh and exciting. And here's something about myself you may not have known: I absolutely love serpent-men! And the fact that serpent-men are present in Grodzicki's campaign setting is not the only great thing, most self respecting S&S settings have them somewhere, but that he offers a bit of a new spin, at least one I had not heard before.

"In other periods, monstrous dynasties prevailed. Cruel serpentmen enslaved the warmbloods until the world suddenly cooled, forcing a southern retreat to more humid climates." p. 14 The Midlands.

Here again, in that powerful but brief style we are given a seed line that a dynasty of Serpent-men ruled as slave lords over the the "warm-bloods". And that they did so during a period of a warm, possibly very humid, earth. And that when the earth cooled and the climate changed these serpent folk retreated to the jungles further south. I love such little seeds that spark and fuel my imagination on which I can riff, creating my own unique expression of what is possible within the Midlands.

However, the go-to foe in the Midlands is not Serpent-Men but, appropriately for the genre, men. From dark cultists, to brigands on the roads, men and the evil in their hearts or their domineering, self righteous zeal pose the most common threat in the Midlands. Though the cannibalistic Skorn, a rough half orc type, is inhuman enough in its culture to make it seem certainly monstrous. Which is a classic example of Grodzicki's Midland design. Taking a familiar trope --the orc/half orc type--deepening and changing it just enough to make in new and interesting. But men alone are not the only danger in the Midlands. In a nice but brief bestiary Stephen highlights some of the native monstrosities that lurk in the further corners of the world of the Midlands. Stephen doesn't waste time covering every monster that has been covered a million times in other supplements. You'll find no goblins or gnolls here. The Midlands book presents about 27 unusual, unearthly, demonic and dangerous examples of the types of wicked critters that crawl the face of the planet with the races of men (with three more "normal" exceptions). Each one is, as mentioned above, a seed of weird, Lovecraftian goodness that clearly highlight one of the basic principles of LFG and the Midlands--true monsters are rare, and beyond frightening. Midland monsters are true monsters--mutated horrors of madness that none would want to encounter, let alone hunt down, kill and take the stuff of. In fact any "stuff" such beasts might guard or use would be so demoniacally horrid and cursed that sane men would aught but seek their utter destruction by hammer and fire, salting the earth with its ashes afterwards. No, the mad delusions of a world gone wrong presented in the Midlands is perfectly suited to its purpose and tone.

I love the short section on Laws of the land, giving GMs a good idea of how to handle the inevitable situation when cutpurse, rogues of adventurers run afoul of the ruling powers. And speaking of ruling powers, the Gods and "divinities" of the Midlands are a delightful blend of earthly fantasy and Lovecraftian twistedness which are developed into one well designed whole. Again, reminiscent of R.E. Howard and his kin with their use of the earthly and the unusual in a tantalizingly real version of fantasy.

I love the magic design in LFG, and the Midlands gives us more cool spell names that gives the hum drum spell types we are all too familiar with a new twist. Such names can again can be used as seeds for how to describe and understand the nature of certain spells in a more sinister and dangerous way. For instance I can cast Hold Monster in just about any version of D&D I play, and a lot of games that aren't too D&D at all. However, in the Midlands I cast Crush of the Warp! What the holy hell?! Crush of the Warp? How frickin cool is that?! But doesn't it just make your mind teem with incredible possibilities? What in Gehenna is the Warp? Am I warping space time to hold, nay crush, a monster in some sort of dimensional grip until he can break it? And could I perhaps research to make such a spell that can use this force to literally crush something into dimensional dust if I was powerful enough? And what if the spell fails or goes wrong, as is very possibly in a Midlands game? Have I unleashed  small rip in space time? Or, have I inadvertently crushed myself, or my unwitting comrades, into subcellular goo? I just love this stuff!

But we're not done yet! As I kept reading the Midlands I realized that no matter how much I was enthralled with the first 42 pages, it got better! Next comes the descriptions of the major areas of the Midlands. And though we are not talking about hundreds of nations here, but rather a handful of well described locations, each one a cornucopia of adventurous possibilities. Warning, for some players reading past this point might contain spoilers so advance forewarned. For instance, there is Crow's Keep where the serpent sorceress Rinwolde controls the destiny of the city from the shadows cast by dying Uldred. The well-ordered streets of Dal Karok ruled by the Circle of Five and their feuding houses. The distant Nydissian city of Melek, "her vast slave pens ... the magic hunting Ordo Malefactos," and "the Orogien fighting pits." Here the Skorn horde is faced most directly on the furthest populated outpost of the Midlands. Other such mysterious, shadowy, and dangerous places as Northgate, Port Brax and Vorngard all await the exploration of brave reavers under the creative powers of their GM.

I simply loved the coverage of the locations here, just as I do the geographic wonders such as the Argos Plateau, the Drelnor Forest the Sunstone Ranges and the Suurat Jungle. With his just enough to whet your appetite for adventure style, Stephen has laid out for us a classic and original Swords and Sorcery setting in which we can risk our lives for gold and possibly glory, though such things are as fleeting in the Midlands as the winds that blow across the Trackless Moors.

Numerous other inspired goodies lie hidden within the Midlands campaign setting, such as the GM tools of NPC ideas, Party Bonds, rival adventurers, street names, new classes, and random encounters by region. However, I want to end with my favorite part of the whole work: The last 210 pages of the book! That's right, 210 pages! the Midlands weighs in at 366 total pages including the front and back cover. And more than half the book is my favorite part. If you buy the Midlands for no other reason than this part alone, your money would be well spent. For Stephen in this last section provides material usable by any GM in any campaign with very little adjustment. What you have here are essentially 6 City adventures, 8 Forest adventures, 3 adventures set in the Ice and Snow, 6 in the Jungles and 8 set in or around lakes and rivers! That is a total of 31 adventures! So you are not just getting a setting in The Midlands supplement you are getting a library of adventures to keep you and your group busy for potentially years to come. Now, don't get me wrong. Each adventure is about 6 or so pages long equivalent to the adventures you might have found in Dragon or Dungeon magazine of old. But they are, as the rest of the Midlands is, well written and detailed enough to run right out of the box, while still retaining lots of sandboxiness for GMs and players to romp within. I simply can't say how much I appreciate this part of the book in a setting supplement. I am not sure I have seen such an effort in other similar works. Bravo Mr. Grodzicki!

Of course, there could be a slight conflict of interests if you do run Midlands with rotating GMs if everyone has the supplement. These last adventures would have to be guarded from each other somehow so as to not spoil the fun. So if you are going to run it this way, be sure to take a look at page 147 & 148 at the Rumor Table, and decide who would like to run what and avoid reading other GMs picks--player's honor here! The same doesn't necessarily apply to the setting material in the first of the book. In principle it would be more exciting as a player if you didn't know all the setting and monster stuff ahead of time. But the book is written with enough open flexibility that with a creative GM there will still be tons to surprise and explore as you go. And reading the setting guide for players does give a great feel for what you are getting into, and developing the spirit of the game, so I say just go for it.

And that, my friends, is some of what I think makes the Midlands such a great product, and why I am going to build my next campaigns around this adventurous new world. I'll be sure and fill you in when we get there. We are about midway through our current campaign with several months yet to go, but I can't wait to get into the Midlands both as a player and a GM!

The Midlands at DriveThruRPG

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

On Being a "Good" DM

There has been a proliferation of DM advice columns across the digital universe in the past decade or so, and some of them are quite good. There has been a deeper and more thorough description offered in all of the major D&D rulebooks of how to address the many issues facing the DM in the game. Also, a very good thing in my opinion. We have seen the rise, as well, of the streaming game casts such as Critical Role, and live game sessions such as the PAX Acquisitions Incorporated sessions. These, even more than the columns and rulebook advice, have given DMs and players alike the chance to see good DMs in action. These live & streaming events have done something even better for hard working DMS--they have helped us realize that even the great Chris Perkins and Chris Mercer stumble at times, stall, wing it, are caught unawares or with their plans down. Let's face it DMing isn't a science and rarely goes perfectly.

In point of fact much of the advice online and elsewhere for DMs is about what I call "good enough" DMing. They bottom line identifiers of how to know when you are doing just fine and when you need a course correction. These tips often refer to "everyone having a good time" and "giving your players what they want" or "it's not about you it's about the players". These are fine pieces of advice and should be somewhat of a baseline for play regardless of what else you might be focusing on. However, these are often the results of good DMing, not the way to be a good DM. However, the technicalities of tips range the gamut and often depend on playstyle and personal preference. The fact is being a good DM is alot more about charisma and wisdom than they are intelligence or creativity. Don't get me wrong intelligence and creativity are certainly important and these two factors tend to be present in abundance in most DMs. But the ability to DM in a way that everyone is having fun and that entertains as well as challenges the players (i.e. gives them what they want) is about how you apply that intelligence & creativity (wisdom) and about your delivery (charisma). It is interesting to note here that the famous nature of Critical Role has alot to do with the fact that the players are all famous voice actors.

In that vein I would like to recommend two unusual sorts I have come across recently that I feel do a good job of communicating these elements of DM character in rather unconventional but clearly stated ways. The first I mentioned before: Matt Colville.

Matt is a game designer and author and other cool things too, as well as what appears to be a great DM. I love his channel and especially his Running the Game series of videos. Not only does Matt give great advice, he also talks through his failures and successes in such a way as to model what works and what doesn't and why.

The second I just came across recently, and I'll admit at first I was uncertain. Runehammer admittedly first struck me as an out of place viking looking for a tavern, not a game table. But after watching his first couple of videos, I was hooked. I'm not sure if it was the mead flowing or inspiration, but he has a take on DMing that is original while being right at the heart of the artform at the same time.

I mention these two, there are certainly others because they do something the pdocasts, live streams, rulebooks, and columns don't do. They break down what's going on in the game and talk about why it works. We can read about it in columns and rulebooks, we can watch it in action on livecasts, but then we can watch someone explain it all with passion, drama and expertise after the fact. I think all three are helpful, but these types of game commentators (Colville and RuneHammer) have made me excited about DMing. And they make it seem accessible to even the most thick headed of us Grognards.

Being a good DM is a journey not a destination and like most performance arts every session is different. But one of the best things about it is that you get to come back to the next session and try it all over again, and if we're lucky we have good partners with us at the table helping it all come together.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Weak DMing Last Night

So, last night's game. No one complained. I guess there's that. But I came away just like that last picture, of the statue, face palm, on myself. Meaning I wasn't mad at my players, they did a pretty good job, I just came away feeling like I biffed it. Admittedly we were transitioning. We had been grinding away at a hexcrawl to get the players through to the next phase of the campaign. I decided to speed things up through the last day of that crawl and we got onto the town they were headed to.

Now several things were supposed to happen for the PCs to make their decisions on where they wanted to take the next phase. They were generally following the trail of the slavers and their two main villains, but didn't know how their current invitation tied into that. There was going to be a fire at the location of their invitation, which if they investigated would lead to the discovery of the slavers most recent raid. This could have led to a meeting with the watch commander, and or the mayor. If things developed they would uncover the watch commander's connection with their old contact from the Lord's Alliance and new information about the slaver's plot. They also needed to decide if they were going to pursue the slavers overseas or investigate things in town with the now compromised Lord's Alliance. They could put together that their old enemy Halia of the Zhentarim was actually acting as a slaver and was in the company of a suspicious drow. Finally if they decided to chase the slavers they would have to do so in disguise and have to book passage start the two day voyage through rather dangerous waters.

Whew! Yeah, well so much was going on, and I was in such a hurry to get things sped up that it began to feel a little "railroady" to me. I suppose that I didn't really railroad it, as give so much information to them so easily that it was pretty clear what the best course of action would be. Unfortunately things went sour on the voyage and they were hit by a storm and then the giant kraken-like beast that lurks in those waters. To make matters worse, only one had been on a seagoing vessel before and the majority of the party was suffering from seasickness.

There was little combat thus far--we ended just as the tentacled kraken rose up and attacked the ship--and the roleplaying was a bit rushed and thus less than satisfactory to me at least. Like I said, no one complained; even when they only earned 450 XP for this session, kind of modest for 6th level. But I came away feeling like I just hadn't performed up to par. I had prepped of course, but the session really required more prep than I had put in, as it required a lot more NPCs and roleplay than I had thought through. I could have taken my time and stretched the session out over two or three more sessions, but the hex crawl had already begun to drag on a bit. I also could have just compressed time and sped up to the sea voyage, or skipped the crawl altogether even though it was through a region known to be dangerous and monster infested.

Lesson learned? I'm really not sure. I mean I am not sure what I would have done differently. Stretching things out and taking out time could have been fun, but it also could have dragged on. Compressing things might have sped things up but strained verisimilitude and player choice. And many of the threads they were pursuing could have led in different directions based on which path over the web they took--I didn't want to take that away from them.

Any advice out there?

Thursday, November 2, 2017

National Campaign Creation Month

Greyhawk Grognard
Have I ever told you how much I love Greyhawk Grognard? Well, yes I have. From his incredible and expansive Greyhawk knowledge, to his creation of the amazing Adventures Dark & Deep, probably the closest AD&D could have been variant ever written. I just really like his work. I also admire his endurance in the blogosphere, the quality of his posts, and his ability to finish the projects he starts. 

Recently in my email in box the most recent post of GG popped up. He had posted the first back of the envelope scribblings of a campaign he was designing. Not really knowing what he was doing exactly--GG is a long time Greyhawk DM, as in it's the primary campaign he runs--I read through the entry. I was immediately smitten. The very old school way of doing what he was doing, and the clear window into the design process was not only revealing it struck a chord in my heart. Since I design almost exactly like he does in this early stage I felt an immediate affinity for what he was doing. So often in today's gaming world one can feel incapable of tackling the job of such work as campaign design, adventure design, world building and heck even character creation when so much of the industry represents only its finished products.

We have become so sensitive to "inferior" production values that few designers ever get out of the gate. And here we have a GM who is a recognized, published game designer and writer of products with high production values, showing us inside what we essentially have been doing in this hobby since before 1975. I was enchanted.

Not to mention the campaign shows enough cool seed ideas to peak even the most jaded players' "that would be cool" spots. The thing is, I have notebooks jammed with ideas just like this, but most if not all are "unfinished" in one form or another. I, unlike GG, do not have the same finisher ethic. Which is why, when I finished reading through the email and stopped by his blog I was excited even further.

I'm slow at getting news, but evidently there was a website that had sought to copy NaNoWriMo's success but in game design. Nation Game Design Month aka NaGaDeMon (is that a cool name or what?) appears to be defunct this year sadly. However, GG had participated back in 2011 and been successful at producing a rather neat wargame. That alone was enough to excite me, since I've been secretly working on a game concept in my underground lab for months now. Unfortuantely, I can't say any more about that--don;t worry, I won't finish it ... But what GG has done is take that same spirit and created NaCaCrMo! Yeah, not as cool of a name, but wth. Nation Campaign Creation Month is what GG is informally calling his efforts this November and yesterday's post was his first efforts in that vein. Is that cool or what?!

Now, I have already started my seed idea for NaNoWriMo, I'm growing out my moustache for Movember, I'm trying to finish my game for NaGaDeMon, I'm celebrating National Native American Heritage at my largely tribal school and now I'm designing a new campaign for NaCaCrMo! Let the festivities begin! I think I'm going to ask for my two week vacation this month ...

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Why Stranger Things Hits All the Right Notes

It's not just the Dungeons & Dragons. Though certainly it is a part of that, a huge part of that. The cultural reference of the game that has made such a huge impact in my life is a sure fire way to get my attention. But it took season 2 of this Netflix smash hit to really make it clear to me: it isn't just D&D. It has also helped me realize why I am so loyal to the early editions in the games' development.

It's all the cultural references. I watch this series and am literally transported back in time. The music, the clothes, the tech references, the movie call outs, the setting generally, it just all serves to transport me back to a time in my life that is filled with enchantment. The show is a veritable smorgasbord of nostalgia. More than that, though, it takes this nostalgia and makes it relevant to today, it makes it timeless.

I loved how in season 2 (slight spoiler alert) the new character Bob uses his knowledge of BASIC programming to save the day when they are trapped in the lab. Somehow managing to make it seem new and relevant to the time as well. Despite the fact that such a hi tech lab might have used a more updated program, the fact is it just rang with truth. The computer classes I took in high school were all BASIC programming classes. And the only two other programs I knew about at the time were COBOL and FORTRAN. Either way, it was a brilliantly executed scene and exactly the kind of nerd time transport I'm talking about.

In today's world it is increasingly difficult for 70's and 80's nerds to be nerds. Nerddom is so much wrapped up in the popular media and fandom that it is not even considered sufficiently nerdly anymore--it is just popular culture. The fact that a show like Stranger Things can even exist is proof enough of that. Which brings me to my second point.

Why do I like AD&D so much? The same reason I love BASIC, and ATARI, and the original Star Wars trilogy (so much better than all the others) and 12" GI Joes, the original yellow and black suited X-Men, and lead minis. Nostalgia. Okay, maybe not exactly the same reasons, but damn close.

I currently play 5e (slightly modded for old school) with my kids, two family friends each Sunday night and we all love it and have a good time. Yes, I would rather be playing AD&D. Truthfully I would also like to be playing with my old high school gaming buddies too, but am I missing something? My kids love comic books, Harry Potter, all the Star Wars movies, the new Star Trek movies and TOS, and they love playing Dungeons & Dragons, my eleven year old daughter just told me game night is her favorite night of the week along with her gymnastics practice night.

Do I dare let my grognardly nostalgia interfere with their Stranger Things days right now? Wouldn't I have loved it if my dad played D&D with me? The one time we sat and had an extended conversation about how to start my own campaign world is one of the most memorable conversations we have ever had, for me at least. He took the most recent copy of the Austin American Statesman newspaper and drawing from the headlines helped me plan out a land of nations divided by a huge chasm, where one side of the chasm were really poor hard working folk and the the other side were richer families who used the poor to work for them with the idea that their increasing prosperity would serve the poor as well. But the poor weren't prospering and what's worse the middle class where being forced across the divide. This led several factions of the poor to ally with various monsters in their bid to defeat the rich, and over throw the nobility. It was much deeper than that with all sorts of side plots, but basically it was my first campaign and the only one I have ever heard of built on Ronald Reagan's idea of trickle down economics.

What memories will my kids have with me and our games? And what will they think if I crap all over the new Star Trek movies, or how Marvel and DC are crapping all over canon with their new film releases? Or how I cant stand digital comic books? No, I need to relax, and be the supportive one in their days of geekdom. I'm sure when they grow old they will begin to feel like me. They will curl up at night reading their old 5e players handbooks pining for the good old days and they too will have sweet memories that can be conjured up by shows like Stranger Things.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Why Did You Change That Rule?

Dungeons & Dragons has always existed amidst dichotomies. One of the most frequently experienced at the table is the injunction within the rulebooks of the game that the rules are not the most important thing. Gary Gygax points this out early on in the evolution of the game, and explicitly in the AD&D rulebooks appointing the Dungeon Master as the ultimate arbiter. At the same time, some very specific rules were laid out in the books, quite a few in the case of AD&D, which seem to be begging to be followed.

In point of fact the very openness and flexibility of Original Dungeons & Dragons seemed to be answered by the specificity of rules outlined in AD&D. It was quite common that players of the game would even write, call or speak up at conventions to ask pointed questions about rulings and game rules, or the absence thereof. Often these questions involved very specific situations that had arisen in the game on which a rule was needed or clarification of interpretation was required. The exactness and multiplication of rules in AD&D did not fix this situation entirely, and some might say compounded it. However, it could be argued that the multiplication of rules in the Advanced edition of the game was a direct response to the lack of rules previously.

It could also be argued that the Advanced game had more rules simply because it was "advanced" and hence lent itself to more complex gameplay. Whichever argument might win out, the dichotomy was here to stay. Now, whether the original intention of the statement that the rules are a guide came about because it is simply impossible to cover every conceivable rule to cover every possible situation that might arise in a D&D game; or if it arose out of a desire to place imagination and flexibility in the hands of the master and players of the game, is hard to know. Likely, it was a combination of the two, the first pragmatically, the second idealistically.

The question then is which playstyle should win out? Of course such a question could be seen but as aught but a variation of the endless argument of which game is better. Both styles of play, hew to the RAW or wild and free, are perfectly viable ways to play as long as the social contract has reached consensus. However, is there a way that seems to make more sense in relation to the game itself?

I've struggled with this for some time now, and it recently came to mind again when I received the latest issue of my favorite gaming magazine in the mail this week: Knights of the Dinner Table. The Knights, and the Hackmaster game as represented in the Knights, like to play with this dichotomy. Most recently in a grudge match between Gary Jackson and the Hard Eight staff and the Knights themselves in DAWG the RPG. The much renowned GM Jake Berlin decides to house rule a few things in addition to his scenario and is lambasted by Gary Jackson the creator of the game. This is one of the beautiful ironies of KODT that it can play satirically with these things we all experience at the table, and dream about in our mind. Every regular reader of the comic knows that GJ would bend or break a rule as long as it suited him, all the while using the same logic that he created the rules, he knows what he meant, or intended, or hell, he can do whatever he wants--they're his rules after all. And his own book "Hackmaster" also makes clear as does the DMG after which it is modeled, that the GM's the thing, not the rules. In fact the GM very literally "rules"!

I mention this because, as the comic always does, the argument playing out in the panels drew me in and I found myself siding with one of the characters. In this case, I was with Berlin. I mean, he hadn't really changed any rules, he had just added rules. And I really want to see the Untouchable Trio +1 hand Hard Eight and GJ their asses. Oh, there'll be hell to play in some way, but the sip of sweet justice is fine. Anyway, by siding with Berlin I really surprised myself. I usually side with those arguing with the rules, instead of against. In an early such debate at B.A Felton's table his players are about to mutiny because B.A. has "tweaked" a Spiny Blue Dragon to be much harder than the Knights are expecting. He has clearly gone against the rules, in fact even the explicitly written rule which Brian, the resident Rules Lawyer, brings up from the Hacklopedia of Beasts, Dragon stats should never be altered! Of course, what he is trying to do is make the Dragon a challenge for the players, but I found myself, though sympathizing with B.A., siding with the players on this one. That's where I usually come down. Don't change or rewrite or erase a rule without being _really_ clear about it.

The reason such situations are so successfully funny and compelling to us is that we have all been in that situation. We all know there is an insoluble dichotomy at work which naturally breeds humor. We all know it is true. And we laugh or at least grin, because we know the Trio +1 would just as easily support B.A. if he tweaked something that made it easier on their characters and brought them more wealth, power or experience. It is a self interested struggle on behalf of the players. And we sympathize with B.A. because his is not as self interested, but done in the interest of providing an adequate challenge to his unruly and perhaps overpowered bunch.

Classic humor aside, however, the struggle between these to poles is very real. Gary Gygax's weight on the matter seems clear:
Used as a standard by which to weight this argument for decades now, and to bequeath to DMs the ultimate power over their game. The loosely defined words, like Spirit, Obvious Intent, Major Systems, Uniformity of Play, and Broad Parameters make the statement almost legally useless however--which might have been the intent after all.

Most of us are quite comfortable with the balance that arises between DM fiat and flow, pacing and direction of play to roll with less exact applications of the rules in order to facilitate engaging and sustained play. In other words we want the story to move on at a nice pace and not have rules get in the way too much. The rules are less like train tracks and more like guardrails on a wide, unmarked two-lane country road on a broad flat field. Even if you broke through the rails, the truck is most likely going to keep on running.

However, what official tension should exist? Well, I offer the following. It is sort of an approach that is honed over time but seems to interpret the intent as well as the spirit in which D&D was created.

1. Rules should be followed if they are written in the official rules of the game, unless specifically represented as optional. And when the need arises and there are optional rules offered in the rulebooks, these optional rules should be preferred over houserulings.

2. When gameplay is ongoing it is quite common for situations to arise upon which a judgment is made that might be found to contradict a rule later. This can be shelved and remedied later so as not to interrupt the flow too much, unless some critical decision would affect a player negatively or positively to the point that a clear decision should be backed up by rules.

3. It is also common, especially when just learning a game or as a new DM, to not play with all rules initially given that as time goes on and situations arise play is more and more aligned to the rules as outlined in #2 above.

4. Additions to rules should be preferred over changes or exclusions to rules whenever possible, and it is quite common to need to add a houserule to handle situations not covered in the rule. In such cases the rule should be noted and referred to in the future when such situations arise in order to foster uniformity of play at least within the group.

5. Interpretations of rules should likewise be recorded and kept as a houserule with the same guidelines as expressed in #4 above.

6. Excisions or alterations in rules should be avoided if at all possible, but when they are done should be explained before hand to players and common consensus achieved. These should be presented as a houserules addendum which are kept in written format and then recorded so as to provide uniformity of play within the group. Note that not all the specifics of rules changed by the DM need be outlined to the players, if keeping specifics hidden to maintain exciting and engaging play.

Example 1: DM Johnny decides he wants critical hits and fumbles in his game. Such combat specifics are not a part of the main game, but optional rules for crits and fumbles are provided in the GMG. Johnny should adopt these optional rules before adopting or creating his own.

Example 2: In play at Johnny's table that night Swaray the Bard rolls a 1 on his check to play his lute to charm a crowd. Not sure if the Fumble tables handle non combat situations Johnny rules it as a simply, if awful, fail but no actual fumble with more deleterious effects. He didn't want to take the time to look the rule up then, since the thief was about to backstab a guard and the crowd might react, so he just made a ruling and kept the game flowing. However, he notes this to look up after the game to see if he ruled correctly. Note here that if the results of properly determining if a fumble applied in this case could have meant the difference between life and death, or perhaps the thief's success or failure or some other critical action that could permanently affect gameplay the actual rule should be sought and consulted.

Example 3: Evalynn, Johnny's spouse and long time player at his table decides she would like to GM a one shot for a Halloween game. Evalynn has never GMed before, but Johnny is confident she'll do fine. Evalynn decides to not use the extended combat rules, critical or fumbles, because she is still learning to GM. Everyone understands and is fine with this for now. If she continues GMing she'll add those rules in later.

Example 4: Johnny has a player that wants his mage to have an herbalist background and be able to pick herbs that could perhaps substitute for certain material components. There are no rules for backgrounds, so Johnny includes a brief list of proffesions in which players can choose to be trained in before training in their class by adding 1d6 additional years to their age. Also, there are no special rules to handling spellcasting with inferior material components in Johnny's game, so he comes up with a rule on the fly that the spell is less effective, thus either making the save with +1 or damage reduced by one die if a caster tries to cast a spell with less than adequate components. Later that week Johnny comes up with a table that outlines such modifications when the situation arises again.

Example 5: Evlaynn is running her Halloween one shot and comes up against a situation where infravision is used to detect undead. She is not sure if infravision could see the undead since it is a type of heat vision, so she rules that it sees them as an absence of heat, or cold spot, ruling that necromantic magic is maybe cooler than the surrounding area. This is recorded as an official ruling of an interpretation of infravision at her table.

Example 6: Johnny decided that he would share his table for casting spells with inferior material components with his players so they would be able to make informed decisions about their spellcasting (note he could have decided not to share his table, and only told them it was possible to cast spells thusly, but that they would be altered or inferior in most cases, to preserve the element of the unknown, a bit of mystery if you will, about magic in the game). This brings up a discussion among the spellcasters at his table if it would be possible to cast spells without verbal or somatic components at a similar deduction. In fact the discussion moves into casting spells without any components at all. Johnny is not comfortable with this as it would amount to cutting out the component rules altogether and won't go this far. Even before Johnny can get this out, his fighter asks if he can add rules about fighters being able to throw swords with his circus training background ... Note that Johnny's admission of an additional rule in #4 which amounts to a change to a rule opened the can of worms that led to the present discussion. Once rules start changing things can quickly spiral out of control.

So, is this the way the game is supposed to be played? Heck, I don't know. But I will say that we can assume most games are designed with rules that designers have at least given some thought to, and that few know the game quite as well as they. If we are going to play that game we should owe some allegiance to the rules. And in my book we shift more towards the RAW rather than the alternative. If you desire a game of D&D with less rules I would encourage the rules light play of Original or Basic D&D rather than the more explicitly written and designed AD&D and it's offspring.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Zero H.P. and Dying

Recently on one of the AD&D Facebook pages someone asked if characters dying at zero hit points was too unforgiving. I had an immediate opinion (of course I always do) and that opinion hasn't changed. I think that the mechanic of dying at zero H.P. is based in the kind of stories that the game was designed to tell. Of course, this mechanic is always one of the quickest to change as rule systems are house ruled or developed. Even the DMG presents optional rules to avoid Zero is Death, and subsequent games have almost universally followed suit. But, if you'll allow me to present my thoughts, I'd like to make a case that the Zero is Death rule is rooted in the kinds of stories we want to tell ourselves.

First, allow me to quote a current media sensation,  the famed George, R.R. Martin. In an interview with Edge magazine, George explains the following on why so many of his main characters die.

"I think a writer, even a fantasy writer, has an obligation to tell the truth and the truth is, as we say in Game of Thrones, all men must die," ... "You can’t write about war and violence without having death. If you want to be honest it should affect your main characters. We’ve all read this story a million times when a bunch of heroes set out on adventure and it’s the hero and his best friend and his girlfriend and they go through amazing hair-raising adventures and none of them die. The only ones who die are extras. That’s such a cheat. It doesn’t happen that way. They go into battle and their best friend dies or they get horribly wounded. They lose their leg or death comes at them unexpectedly."

As D&D matured it became increasingly influenced by two media, movies and video games. In both these media the main characters rarely die, and if they do in the case of video games, they simply restart, usually only a little behind where they were before. Yes, I'm aware that D&D largely started the current video game craze, but there was an increasing feedback loop between the two throughout the 90's and 2000's viz, 4e and World of Warcraft. I think we can also refer to the red shirt phenomena on Start Trek to affirm the other fact that Martin is referring to here as well,

Sort of like D&D NPCs? We might as well put red shirts on the all of the supporting cast in any D&D campaign for the rate they die compared to PCs.

Martin goes on in the same interview to say.

"Once you’ve accepted that you have to include death then you should be honest about death and indicate it can strike down anybody at any time," ... "You don’t get to live forever just because you are a cute kid or the hero’s best friend or the hero. Sometimes the hero dies, at least in my books. I love all my characters so it’s always hard to kill them but I know it has to be done. I tend to think I don’t kill them. The other characters kill ‘em. I shift off all blame from myself."

Which touches on the next thing that can make a DM reluctant to have a Zero is Death mechanic in their game: guilt. The fact is, we represent every non player force in the world and these forces are what usually spell the end of a PCs life if anything will. And thus by default it must be the DM that killed the PC. This logic, for the religious, makes God responsible for every death in our world--sadly some believe just that. But deeper thinkers have come to the conclusion that if God, or something like God, exists he doesn't control every force in the universe, as much as all things are given free will and the forces of the Universe obey natural law. God may have "created" natural law (or not), but he doesn't control it. DMs are called judges in early D&D for a good reason. They are judging the effects of the laws and mechanics of the game and the situations in which the characters, by free will enter. No, I am not trying to equate DMs with God, only to provide an analogy by which DMs can avoid the guilt they feel when a character dies. There is no need to feel like you killed a character, but that the world in which they play a very dangerous game of "war and violence" has killed them.

So, if we are to assume that characters have free will and that they are engaging in a very dangerous world in which living fire breathing dragons the size of semi-truck & trailers, or larger, fly around the world along with thousands of other evil, deadly beasts roam the lands, then premature death should be a constant in this world. In fact, if you think about the closest analog to the D&D world we have, our world during the medieval age, the picture becomes very clear. In the middle ages, men fought against men constantly. Hence the need for castles, fortified cities and the like. Include death, disease, famine, lack of adequate medical care and the death rate becomes very high indeed. Now, drop in several hundred species, some numbering in the tens of thousands, whose sole desire is not just to conquer but to tear, rend, destroy and kill all in their path. Such critters like goblins, orcs, gnolls, hobgoblins, kobolds, and the like. Add a few serious beasties equivalent to natural disasters, like Dragons, a Tarasque, Basilisks, and Wyverns, and you've got a world hundreds of times more dangerous than our own medieval world. And we know that in our medieval world people died frequently and in great numbers. Doesn't it seem likely that death should be a more clear and present danger in the lives of adventurers than modern games make it?

If we extend this metaphor of fantastic naturalism two other facts quickly jump out. First, magic becomes much more important than even we may assume. Magic is the one force that perhaps can equalize the forces of men against such unnatural darkness in the world. The obvious difference between the forces of good and the forces of evil are, generally speaking, that the evil races are more stupid--humanoid races, or fewer in number--dragons, than humans and demihumans and therefore the good races bring their intelligence and wisdom to bear on these forces in the forms of Clerics and Magic Users. Few are the forces of evil that can generate an evil mage of sufficiently high enough level to truly threaten the civilizations of men long enough to cause them to crumble. The exception are races like the drow, who prefer to stay underground due to inherent limitations, races like the Githyanki, who need physical realms only for raising children and pirating etc.

However, magic being what it is, if unrestrained could rocket our analog middle age into a science fantasy utopia (or at least a highly advanced dystopia--e.g. Eberron) were it not for the ever present pressure of these destructive forces in the world. Certainly kings and emperors could fund the research of advanced guilds and orders of mages to investigate new magical findings that might indeed change the world. And such endeavors, I think, would be a constant occupation in many more established kingdoms. However, the forces of evil constantly tax the resources of the state. From within and without these chaotic dangers of misrule would tax even the most capable of magical societies to simply keep destruction at bay warding boundaries and borderlands, scrying upon their movements and counterspelling whatever attempts these unbalanced, invading forces are executing upon the realms of peace and light.

Thus we can see, our beloved fantasy world stays in a sort of evolutionary stasis, never quite advancing but never quite collapsing. Or better said constantly waning and waxing with the incoming tides of evil and destruction. And, in fact, most fantasy worlds are littered with the ruins of past empires self immolated on the pyre of advancing magic or imploding due to the pressures of encroaching evil. This is good for us who, in game terms, are looking for a fantasy world to play in forever and Peter-Pan like never grow old. But bad, very bad, for those who live there. What I mean is that death would be an ever present constant in such a world, and the danger present there should be reflected in our "play" therein.

Not to forget the divine forces at work in such a world. These divinities take sides in this constant battle, some less so than others given the druthers of the DM. Think for a moment on this: that we play in a world where almost infinitely powerful beings exist and influence the life and destiny on this world on both sides of the battle. There are Gods of the orcs, just as there are Gods of men. Evil Gods, Chaotic Gods, Gods of hearth and home, and Gods of war and strife. Sometimes we in our world, so conditioned by monotheism (whether we are believers or not) forget what true literal polytheism implies. The struggle is real, not just on our fantasy world, but in the realms beyond them acting out the struggle in the Heavens and the Hells just as they are acted out upon our fantasy home world. These forces too, struggle in an endless tug of war for political influence and the fate of not just the world but existence itself. This too, keeps things in a perpetual state of balance, life and death, good and evil, law and chaos.

Now, having said all that and made the argument for the Zero is Death mechanic, I step to the other side. Stories of Hercules, Odysseus, Achilles, Krishna, Gilgamesh, Thor, Robin Hood, Merlin and King Arthur all require one thing: immortality. Even those heroes that in the end die, die with the legacy and promise of a second coming greater than the first. If these are the types of heroes we wish to play, and the types of stories we wish to tell, then by all means, remove the Zero is Death mechanic. In fact, it is better to remove death as a possibility at all. There may be challenges that seem to threaten death, but in the end the hero carries on. But keep in mind, the one thing that all of these heroes also had in common was an unnatural origin. They were not normal to begin with (with the exception of RH). Their births were the products of the Gods, or at the least of strongly magical origins and their destinies fated from birth. Such heroes were never normal men and thus destined for lives that were beyond the normal.

Does this mean that all characters in a Zero is Death campaign die? No, at least not necessarily in battle. Allow me to paint the picture of Conan the Barbarian. Conan was never a hero, at least not by the strict definition of the term. He was a mighty adventurer indeed, but no "hero". Great though he was, in most D&D representations Conan is around sixth to ninth level. Yep, not 20th or 30th not even 15th (admittedly in CB1 & 2 Conan is portrayed as a 13th level fighter and 7th level thief so he is a bit higher there) , but in general not ungodly in level. And moreover the arc of Conan's life is one of random adventuring where he overcomes regional or local menaces--not world shattering epic threats. And he eventually, around say level 9 or so, establishes himself as King of Aquilonia. Effectively this is the equivalent of a 9th level AD&D fighter establishing a stronghold. He then leaves to eventually face death itself. And with the "Death Song of Conan the Cimmerian", I would like to leave this post. Its stanzas speak of the life Conan led, and the stories I would like to tell in my fantasy world of adventure ...

The Death Song of Conan the Cimmerian

The road was long and the road was hard, 

And the sky was cold and grey: 

The dead white moon was a frozen shard 

In the dim dawn of day: 

But thief and harlot, king and guard 

Warrior, wizard, knave and bard 

Rode with me all the way.

The wind was sharp as a whetted knife 

As it blew from the wet salt seas; 

The storm wind stirred to a ghostly life 

The gaunt black skeletal trees: 

But I drank the foaming wine of life 

Wine of plunder and lust and strife 

Down to the bitter lees.

A boy, from the savage north I came 

To cities of silk and sin. 

With torch and steel, in blood and flame, 

I won what a man may win: 

Aye, gambled and won at the Devil's game 

Splendor and glory and glittering flame 

And mocked at Death's skull-grin.

And there were foemen to fight and slay 

And friends to love and trust: 

And crowns to conquer and toss away 

And lips to taste with lust: 

And songs to keep black nights at bay 

And wine to swill to the break of day 

What matter the end be dust?

I've won my share of your gems and gold 

They crumble into clods: 

I've gorged on the best that life can hold: 

And the Devil take the odds: 

The grave is deep and the night is cold 

The world's a skull-full of stinking mould 

And I laugh at your little gods!

The lean road slunk through a blasted land 

Where the earth was parched and black. 

But we were a merry, jesting band 

Who asked no easier track: 

Rogue and reaver and firebrand 

And life rode laughing at my right hand 

And Death rode at my back.

The road was dusty and harsh and long 

Crom, but a man gets dry! 

I'm old and weary and Death is strong 

But flesh was born to die: 

Hai, Gods! But it was a merry throng 

Rode at my side with jest and song 

Under an empty sky.

I've heard fat, cunning priestlings tell 

How damned souls writhe and moan: 

That paradise they can buy and sell 

For gold and gold alone: 

To the flames with scripture and priest as well 

I'll stride down the scarlet throat of hell 

And dice for the Devil's throne!

I faced life boldly and unafraid 

Should I flinch as Death draws near? 

Life's but a game Death and I have played 

Many a wearisome year: 

Hai! to the gallant friends I made 

Slave and swordsman and lissome maid 

I begrudge no foot of the road I strayed 

The road which endeth HERE!

~ Lin Carter ~

Friday, October 13, 2017

Is D&D 5e Satan's Child?

Everybody has their story from the 80's if the adults in your life were in any way influenced by the rising tide of panic that saw Satan in every shadow and around every corner. For me it started with an informal youth group meeting my church called "firesides". I didn't go to this particular meeting as it so happened, but the fallout was clear when I went to youth group the following Wednesday. All my friends at church who played D&D, even the guys who taught me to play were either selling their stuff or had been forced to burn it by their parents.

Holy moly indeed! I won't go into the deep pain these events caused me or the real harm they did to my faith in the long run--far more than D&D ever did--but I do draw them from your memories as an attempt to paint a picture of the past and how it effects the present of the D&D gaming world.

If you are not familiar with this time, you owe it to yourself to peruse a few artifacts from the period in order to understand what early gamers were up against. First there was the group formed by Patricia Pulling, Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (yep, BADD); and their pamphlet that you can read about here. And then there was Jack Chick's circulars Dark Dungeons, which were more entertaining if even more melodramatic. And if you wonder where in the literal hell all this was coming from, check out a few of these videos to catch a flavor of the satanic fear that was rampant at the time: A Police Guide to Occult Crimes & Oprah Show satanic sensationalism. Ludicrous to say the least.

Now, all of this tripe was proven to be false time and again throughout the 80's and 90's including the episode with James Dallas Egbert, the trial of the Memphis three, satanic ritual abuse, as well as allegedly D&D related suicides, murders and other criminal behavior. But, by the time this exonerating press was generally accepted, the damage had already been done. It was, I'll say again, horribly life changing for me. I was a victim in more ways than one. This, however, is not my point here today. The real reason for today's post is a comment made on my last entry by one of my readers Shadowplay. Shadowplay wondered if the shift towards character-driven, story-oriented play may have been in any way influenced by the Satanic Panic as well.

I'll admit, my first instinct was no. I mean we all know that 2e scrubbed off the pointy bits of the game by cutting out demons, devils and other scary stuff in order to placate the moral critics. But the shift to story oriented play? I didn't think so. However,  on second blush I wondered if this actually could be true. Were there forces at work in TSR that could have pushed D&D towards a lighter and fluffier tone in regards to story as well? One had to admit that with all the dangerous parts redacted D&D was not only looking cleaner, it was playing cleaner. It wasn't just more story oriented; the storylines seemed less swordsy & sorcerous and more heroic and chivalrous. I was intrigued, and thought I could do some research.

Honestly, I didn't think I'd find anything. I mean I knew about The Escapist, and their pro gaming research database and articles. I had previously studied actual gaming related social and psychological research on the ERIC database and from several university research libraries I had access to. No, what I was looking for was some kind of internal memo or article or interview or personal memoir of what was going on inside TSR during the times this was happening. I had read interviews from Gary Gygax, watched his appearances and defenses on shows like the 60 minutes' jaundiced tabloid piece. Though helpful for TSR's views, none of that material really gave us a view inside TSR's creative dynamics of the time. Until I came across James Ward's article in Dragon #154 "The Game Wizards: Angry Mothers from Heck (and what we do about them)".

Published in 1990 toward the tail end of most of the vitriol, the article was a slightly safer sell. But here, in this one page policy statement we have much of the smoking gun we are looking for. I would love to reproduce the whole article for those who don't have access, but I should probably not do that. However, I will quote several salient sections.

The article starts with "Avoiding the Angry Mother Syndrome is something that I talk about quite often at TSR, Inc. Simply put, if a topic will anger the normally calm, caring mother of a gamer, we aren't interested in addressing that topic in any of our game products." Clearly drawing a thesis in the sand that TSR is no longer interested in controversial material in gaming. While admitting the game is about sworsdmen and wizards battling evil beasties, they make it clear that the focus of such activities should only be with the most wholesome of motives (can't avoid a grin here). Ward goes on to present the caveat to adventuring that "there are clear differences between fighting for its own sake and fighting for a good cause. The good cause part is largely what role-playing is and should be all about."

You know, for the longest time I could never understand why some old schoolers during the dawn of the OSR would say they lamented the time when you could play any alignment in a game and not only virtuous and heroic types. I mean I had never really had the desire to play evil characters, nor encouraged my players to do so, and I also never really felt that Gary or D&D encouraged it. I also could not see any rule in the later games that explicitly prohibited it or even strongly discouraged it. Where was this OSR critique coming from? Well, it seems that they were mentioning something that had taken over D&D spiritually, not necessarily mechanically as Ward's explanations make clear.

The guidelines in this short little piece are not really mechanical, in fact they don't effect the mechanics much at all. It's true that Ward does mention the removal of demons and devils and points out that it's fine if you want to use these kinds of tropes in your game, but it is not to be construed as official TSR material. In fact the guidelines Ward points out somewhat prosaically are guided by a mother's smile ... "each product should be lots of fun to play and involve high adventure, but each product also has to have certain elements that any gamer's mother in this or any other universe would smile at. These qualities must be present in each gamer's role-playing to foster the right stuff." [emphasis mine]

Those last two phrases are powerful indeed: must be present in each gamer's roleplaying. What we are hearing here is a mandate not just for a certain class of product, but for what the gaming experience and play should be like. 'We don't play dark and gritty,' they seem to be saying, 'we play light-filled and heroic'. While they'll say in one breath it is fine if you want to play with demons and devils (which Ward says that they are still getting at least one complaint a week about); in the ne xt breath they imply the way they want gamers to play is in a very different direction indeed. And the last portion tells how they will achieve that: TSR should provide the content that will foster the "right stuff", i.e. the "right" kind of roleplaying. Wow. It seems like Shadowplay's assumption may have been more correct than I would have ever imagined.

The article goes on to explain that a whole series of guidelines have been set up at TSR to achieve this goal which he proceeds to outline in the remainder of the piece. These are:

Artwork: "The male and female figures shown are heroic and good looking, and would get either G or PG movie ratings." With the explicit caveat that TSR does not deal in "blood and gore."

Violence: TSR should take pains, we are told, to limit "the level of violence that goes on during an adventure." Players should focus on using wit and roleplaying to overcome challenges not muscle hewing blood and bone with sword, stressing that "anyone with any intelligence at all ... finds that hacking and slashing becomes boring very quickly."

Adventures: Clearly the goal in such adventures then should be more in line with "saving the princess" than killing evil foes. "TSR's products have used hundreds of goals of this sort, such as actually saving a princess, curing silver dragons of a terrible disease, and protecting small towns from raiding giants." And moreover the reason for this is that "Those who play in these modules like heroic goals. They like the challenge of doing something tough; they like to receive rewards for helping others out; and they like to feel good about their characters after these PCs accomplish something useful." We are no longer exploring savage and untamed wilderness or deep and treacherous caverns filled with crawling undead for gold and glory. Well, I guess we might be, but it is with the purest of motives and to bring to pass an incredible story of saving the princess or curing the diseased dragon. Story has become the point.

The point of this article, however, is not just information, or even assuaging the raging masses; it is, according to the article itself, "I would like for all readers to be able to point to it as a policy statement of TSR, Inc. This company is interested in presenting material that promotes all of the qualities that parents want their children to have as those children grow up." [emphasis mine]. The reason for such a change being that at TSR, "We care about our products and want as few angry moms as possible."


Now, please know, I do not fault Mr. Ward or even TSR for this article or the changes they undertook. I may not have liked the changes, but as a gamer who lived through this insane time and was personally affected both in my gaming out, I completely understand. The last thing I want to do is to lob stones, or encourage others to lob stones, in the direction of the TSR, its employees or D&D at this time. To tell you the truth, if they had come out with this approach rather than the defenses waged early on by Gygax (which I also love by the way) it might have saved me some small bit of heartache. And yes, you can lob stones at the cretins who organized, supported and fanned the flames of the satanic panic, as many used nefarious ends, deception and lies to accomplish their goals; but in the end, words, not stones lead to healing and understanding.

What I am interested in now, however, is stating that it is clear that much of the changes instituted with 2e and Classic D&D Mentzer Boxed Sets and Rules Cyclopedia, were driven by the Satanic Panic and TSR's subsequent policies to make the game a lighter, fluffier, character driven, heroic, and story oriented game. For me Shadowplay's hypothesis is fairly well proven with this article publicly presented by TSR in their flagship voice at the dawn of 2e.

I think it is also worth nothing that many early designers such as Gary Gygax himself and Tim Kask had already left the organizations. These same voices had defended D&D for what it was without feeling the need to radically change things (as their witness makes clear in their interviews and statements of the time). This trend also speaks to some of the criticism men like Frank Mentzer have taken from certain grognards who decry their work--but this is perhaps a post for another time, or better yet, perhaps not. My mind currently is filled with thoughts after this new discovery. And as regards 5e ... I will only say, as I stated in my last post, that 5e inherited this post-panic legacy far more than it did the spirit, flavor and tone of early D&D as it left the pens of Gygax and Arneson. To say more at this point would be premature. The realizations, I am sure, will be forthcoming as I process and extend my thoughts in these directions.

Peace, and play on.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

D&D 5e and the D&D We Recall

Remember this age? It was a grand time to be a gamer. The Satanic Panic and the days of D&D Yellow Journalism were over and there was more D& product than there ever had been. At least that's how many remember it. Notice the above books, 1e supplements, 2e Core, and a 2.5e Options book. It was a wild and crazy time for gaming, a time in many ways presaging the rise of 3rd edition.

For others of us, it was a time of decline. I owned these books (except for Tome of Magic) but rarely played with them. I was still using what I had grown up with:
Now, I did use other books. The most common ones were:

Because we never had a very defined pantheon in out worlds, but just assumed that in the D&D multiverse all these Gods and Goddesses held sway over some part of any world that existed. It was only later that this view was refined. And who couldn't use new beasties to encounter and overcome. I mean FF is still one of my favorite monster manuals.

But there were others that figured much, much less in my play, the survival guides, Manual of the Planes and Oriental Adventures were seldom referred to. They were mostly novelties, fun to look at, but not really applicable to any games we were playing. The one ninja played in our party used the single class Genin option from Dragon #121 instead of OA, we were just more comfortable with Dragon than OA.

The one we had more of an uncertain love for was the infamous Unearthed Arcana. Really, just a re-written compendium of various Dragon articles and material from other supplements, it introduced two over-powered classes into the game, a weird half class (thief-acrobats), codified rules for specialization, and a boat load of new spells. Yes, we added cantrips on our spell lists, but never found a whole lot of use for them frankly. They were true cantrips, not the cantrips of today, some of which are as powerful as third level spells used to be! I made one Cavalier, that I never ended up playing with. I think a friend of mine played a barbarian a couple of times, but we all thought he was overpowered. And everyone, who could picked up specialization, even though we really felt kind of dirty about it, and DMs kind of hated it. Which led to our love-hate relationship with UA. We just had that innate feel that this was doing something to the game none of us were really comfortable with. The power curve had begun to drift outside of the line of what we considered D&D.

When Second Edition was released in the early 90's, I as still playing 1e, and not even really interested in picking up the new books--not at first anyway. I poo-pooed the books and the changes for some time, even though I had already adopted some of these changes that had been filtering into late 1e splat books and via Dragon magazine. The primary change that was occurring and, I feel, one of the main reasons I at first rejected much of 2e was that there was a shift occurring to character and story centered play. Just look at some of the new covers, even to reprints of the 1e books:

You can see that even by late 1e there is a focus on individual persons, instead of the earlier focus on setting, adventure, and typical old school tropes. And of course 2e followed suit. The player's hadbooks and dungeon masters guides from this era are beautifully done. The artistic quality has improved, even if the content has shifted. We can see that this is a game about heroes and what heroes do, their actions, their stories, their challenges.

 Now, this is not a "bad" thing. After all, of course we knew this was true. Our PCs were trying to be heroes at least, and even if they weren't heroic yet, the stories of the dangers they had faced, the dungeons they had slogged through and survived, the wildlands they had journeyed across in trailblazing fashion to overcome were the stuff of legends. In a very real way this shift in focus simply became what Williams and the Blooms decided to focus on as the selling point and trajectory for future D&D.

The problem, though, was that this was _not_ what D&D had been, nor what it had focused on. Not exclusively at least. The original game had moved warriors and wizards from the wargaming table into the dungeon beneath the castle and the catacombs below. It had dared them to venture into the untamed lands beyond the castle walls and as a result great stories were told. The story was possible because the lands had changed. Setting was the key component that had shifted, and story arose out of the explorers' interactions with this new, dangerous and magical land and its inhabitants. The transition from this approach to a character driven and story focused approach happened gradually, but by 1990 the entire D&D industry shifted to embrace this new angle.

You may find this argument unconvincing, and based on too little evidence, or the narrow band of art alone. But if the covers of the original 3 core AD&D books aren't evidence enough (The party in the lizard-man catacomb of the ruby eyed statue being stolen by two of the party thieves; of the Efreet of the City of Brass being attacked by another party) take a look at a few of these iconic early works from D&D's past:
Bill Willingham's Party facing a Dragon from Moldvay Basic
Dave Trampier's Giant Spider in the 1977 Monster Manual

Dave Sutherland's Paladin in Hell from the 1978 PHB
Can you see the change. Character is there, but the setting and what he or she is not only doing but the impossible odds they are facing is key to the expression that was seen throughout early D&D. The shift in focus from heroic exploits to heroes and explorations to quest driven stories was something that, while present in earlier editions was not the focus for the game. That started in late 1e and boomed onto the scene with second edition.

Which brings me to the main point of this post. 5e has been heralded by many as the return of 1e, or old school D&D. I have always struggled with this because it certainly doesn't feel that way to me. I would assert, first, that this assertion has arisen due to the OSR. It is fairly clear that in the D&D culture specifically and the fantasy tabletop gaming culture generally, D&D changed when TSR was sold to WotC, and Wizards took d20 and wrote what they called the 3rd edition of D&D. Some struggled with this, but the struggle was not much different than had occurred previously as AD&D was released, and then 2e was released. There were always edition naysayers--heck I was one of the 2e naysayers.

But 3rd edition, technically 3.5 was a huge success for WotC and with the addition of the OGL not only had the name of D&D lived, its content was still available and Wizards had brought in all those amateur and aspiring creators to build content for their favorite game. Admittedly d20 was a change from the old mechanical structure, but not a huge one. It made the game easier to understand and more consistent across the rules. People adapted to that fairly easily. And of course 3.5 was created deep within the soil of the 2e character driven ethos. So much so was the character driven model a part of 3.5 that character became king. No longer was setting or even adventure the point--it was being to create, have and play awesome characters from level one and watch them become next to superheroic by the end of their playtime.

Sure settings came and some enjoyed huge success, like Eberron. There were also good adventures during this time, though admittedly, the standard had shifted. Adventures generally needed a cohesive point if not a story outline in which the characters could fit. The point of playing was now how a player's character, who they already loved beyond belief because they had spent hours crafting him to be just the kind of hero they wanted, could have an incredibly awesome story where he could shine, be important and do something awesomely heroic. The point every time you played was to be heroic! Now, I may be overstating the point, but that point is that story drive adventures and characters drove the game.

And, big breath here, that is okay. It is an okay way to play. It is not wrong. And sure, it was a part of the game (in a way) all along. It was just not the point of the game. It had become the point of the game. And I think that those who feel 5e has brought back old school to the D&D world are coming from a place that is much more rooted in this character driven and story-focused realm of the D&D universe.

All of the dislikes about 5e from the last post express, at their heart, a lost time in gaming when gaming was much harder, and felt more adventurous, than it is today. I mean sure, there are still challenges. 5e characters die, and at times these characters face impossible odds. Some 5e DMs still like to throw in save or die poison, require resource allocation, heal more slowly, and make PCs prod along with a ten foot pole when they don't have a thief. Just like there were old school DMs who hated when characters died, crafted brilliant storylines with their players and shepherded characters to godhood and beyond. But, the games were basically making different assumptions. Early D&D, Original Edition, Classic Basic, and early AD&D all played as exploration driven games where adventurers were what you started as, certainly not heroes, and making 5th or 6th level was a feat to be lauded. In 5e, my friends, where fourth level can be achieved by the time most AD&D characters were barely reaching 2nd is simply not the case. And by the time 5e PCs are 10th level, most AD&D characters are just reaching 6th.

5e may have brought you back to the time when old school was becoming a character driven and story focused game. And there is certainly nothing wrong with that. But it did not bring me back to my game, nor the game as it was originally designed to be.